The lost art of pen pal writing

By Herbert Vego

IF most of today’s teenagers have no idea what pen pal writing is all about, it’s simply because it is no longer in vogue. I no longer know of nobody who spends time hand-writing letters to a stranger he would like to befriend via postal mail. What we now call “friends” are thousands of fellow Facebook users with whom we chat using keyboards of cellular phones or laptops.

Gone are the days of yore when we would scan the pen pal columns of weekly magazines for names of strangers willing to exchange letters with us.

I was an elementary-school pupil when I learned of a relative who had received a walking doll from her American pen pal.

The good news prompted me to scan a pen pal column for foreign names.  I found a female one surnamed Levine. I mailed her a letter, only to end up waiting in vain for a reply.

I forgot all about it until my first year in college at the University of the Philippines (UP-Iloilo) in 1966 when I saw names on the bulletin board.  It rekindled my desire to have pen pals because those names were those of students with mails claimable at the registrar’s office.  I thought of sending my name and school address to the pen pal column of the Weekly Nation, one of the most popular Philippine magazines at that time.

To make the long story short, it resulted in 10 to 20 first letters coming my way daily from college students (surprisingly all girls) nationwide until they totaled 146.

“Look at Herbert,” my landlady once told my fellow boarders who were playing dominoes. “He’s so busy with his assignments he has no time to play.”

I could only smile as if to confirm her wrong notion. I was actually writing my first letters to my pen pals. I said a little about who I was and why I wanted pen pals.

Since exchange of pictures was a must among us, I made sure of posing for a good half-body photograph in a studio.

Some of them wrote that they had chosen me from among a score of entries in the pen pal list because I was a UP student, hence “intelligent”.

That image had become a challenge to live up to. I had to arm myself with a pocket dictionary and thesaurus to keep them impressed.

The second and succeeding exchanges of letters were more daunting because I had to comment on facts and ideas my pals had written about.

I had to be as opinionated on political matters as my pal Evelyn who claimed to be a granddaughter of the late Jorge Bocobo, a past president of UP.

The hobby was so time-consuming that it left me less time to study my lessons.  The fear of flunking forced me to trim down the number of my pen pals until there were only about 20 left. I made sure of retaining the most articulate communicators in English.

What the heck was I doing that for when I would not be talking to animals in English? You see, I was then enrolled as a pre-Veterinary Medicine freshman. I had no inkling that I would eventually shift to Journalism in a private university in Manila.

I owe it to those pen pals that I had developed the habit of converting my thoughts into precise written words.

I became news editor and columnist of the Quezonian, school organ of the Manuel Luis Quezon University (MLQU).

At age 20, I was still an AB-Journalism student in 1970 when I found a job as editorial assistant of an entertainment columnist of the defunct Philippine Sun and Evening News in Manila.

Years of pen pal writing had paid off.

At different times, places and circumstances, I personally met with five of my pen pals, namely Elizabeth Chin, Nenita Miranda, Mildred Cocjin, Herminia Galdones and Evelyn Solano. I remember unforgettable experiences with them which I now deem too personal to share. May I just briefly reminisce about the two Ilonggas?

Beth Chin was the closest, literally. She was living in a boarding house across the University of San Agustin, where she was an Education student. After a few letter exchanges, I proposed to pay her a visit in her boarding house. Accepted.

The second time I met her was in 1971 in Manila, where I was already practicing my profession as an entertainment reporter and columnist.  She had come to visit a relative on Bambang St.

The third time around was an incidental fluke. I was attending a fiesta celebration at a friend’s house in Oton town when I saw her among the other guests. By then, she was already a married woman and I, a married man.

During the only time I paid her and her husband Charles a home visit, they gifted me with a shoulder bag made of pure leather.  I broke into a huge smile, remembering that childhood event in our barangay – of a girl receiving a doll from her American pen friend – which sparked my interest in having a pen pal.

Now a widow and a grandmother, Elizabeth Chin-Hiponia shares her home with her only son Carl, a computer engineer. Her daughters Lizbeth, Liezel and Lillibeth are all nurses working in different hospitals abroad.

We still call each other “Pal”.

Another Ilongga favorite was Mildred Cocjin, who introduced herself as a third-year high school student in Dueñas, Iloilo. She wrote neatly, always on linen stationery.

It was in Manila in 1969 where I would see her for a number of times.  She was a freshman Foreign Service student at Lyceum of the Philippines while I was in my third year in Journalism at MLQ University.  The two schools were a three-minute jeepney ride away from each other.

We lost track of each other after my marriage in 1972.

It was not until 2004 when I bumped into her at Sarabia Hotel in Iloilo City.  She had married a Philippine Army “general” surnamed Chavez. She had come to attend a Cocjin clan reunion.

While it was the last time that we saw each other, an opportunity to talk to her unfolded recently when I re-discovered her through Facebook. Now 71 and expecting her first great grandchild, my pen pal Mildred has morphed into a phone pal.